Monday, January 9, 2017

The Story of SILT: Osiris, Dismemberment and the Rebirth of the Sun

For a long time, the mythology of dismemberment has fascinated me. The Vegetation Year God, cut to pieces out in the fields, scattered to bless the earth, reborn at the lip of the winter solstice, when the light begins at last to return. How potent an image of healing, of rebirth. How layered, the word re-member-- to bring broken pieces into wholeness. Of self. Of world. It seems we find ourselves teetering on such a moment, here beyond the doorway of the winter solstice, as the light begins slowly to return to the skies; as another kind of darkness gathers.

The longer I practice the craft of writing, the more I find that stories brew for a long time in me before being ready to be written. My mind catches at patterns, at threads whose meaning I don't yet fully understand, and then one day I see very clearly why they are all there, and what to make of them. During our trip to Greece, myths of dismemberment and rebirth, and above all the symbolism of the snake, gathered in my reading, in my notebook, in my mind. During our final days in London before flying home again, we visited an extraordinary exhibit at the British Museum that included a whole series of rooms and artifacts connected to the Mysteries of Osiris. I almost backed out of going when we reached the gates—it was so crowded, so touristy, and I have such an aversion to crowds. But the moment we entered the darkened rooms, and I beheld the sacred bronze ladles, the little oil lanterns, the ritual boat, all used in the Festival of Osiris... I knew it all fit, somehow. I've been deeply drawn to the world of ancient Egypt since I was a little girl, so the exhibit was something of a revelation. 
Artwork by Catherine Sieck (c) 2016

But it wasn't until I came home, and the unthinkable happened on November 8th, and I sat down with my friend Catherine Sieck on a hillside above a pond, that it all came together. On that hillside we talked about our sorrows and our fears, our hopes and our convictions, how now more than ever is the time for artwork that tells a different story than the story of hatred, violence and greed in which we find presently ourselves. 

A new story collaboration, called SILT, was the result of that conversation, and this is your last week to purchase yourself a copy before we begin printing and shipping them next Monday, January 16th! (You may already have heard the news from my newsletter; if so, forgive the following repetition. You can skip ahead if you like, and read a bit more about the symbolism and mythology of dismemberment, Vegetation gods, and rebirth, below.)

With SILT, we are retelling the Osiris myth along the riverbanks of our own future. In that most sacred of Egyptian stories, Osiris' dismemberment is a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the vegetation each year, and the renewal of life out of the Nile silt. In many ancient cultures across the world, there are myths of the Vegetation God, and his necessary sacrifice at the summer's end, to feed and gift the land with fertility for the next year. We find ourselves on the brink of some great ending, some terrible change that might also bring forth yet unknown beauty, and transformation, and revolution. 

Tomb painting depicting Isis & Osiris
SILT was written and created as an act of opposition and protest against the regime of proclaimed fear, bigotry and environmental attack that will be inaugurated into office on January 20th, 2017. Originally, we planned to time SILT so that it would arrive on your doorsteps on that very day— to offer a story of a different kind of leadership, a different kind of masculinity, a different way of relating to justice and to the earth. However, we've shifted that goal out of respect for the moon and our own cycles of creativity, so that it will now arrive on the NEW MOON, January 27th, 2017 (or very close to it). This felt like a better idea to both of us. As an act of allegiance to a different calendar altogether, it feels like its own kind of resistance—choosing to go by the moon goes against everything this coming presidency claims to stand for, and allows January 20th itself to be a day of action, of grieving, and also of serious planning.

We chose the name SILT as our rallying cry to invoke the power and fecundity of those tiny particles made of quartz and feldspar, tinier than sand and larger than clay, that rivers deposit along their banks during the flood season, renewing the green life everywhere within their reach. Silt is ephemeral and fluid, it can slip unseen between the cracks of the world, but the collective effect of a great rivertide of silt is enormous. Silt sustained the ancient civilization of Egypt for thousands of years, so long as its people remembered its name, and the power of mud.

This bundle is our response, in metaphoric and mythic language, to the place we now find ourselves, not knowing where any of it is leading, but wary of what might come. With this work, we are mucking about at the roots of things, with seeds in our hands and ferocious prayers in our teeth. This is a time to look to the old stories for guidance, to see what they have to teach us, to fortify us for what is to come.

Like I said, this is your last week to purchase a copy, which you can do right here!  The SILT bundle will include a story, a set of cut-paper illustrations, and a special gathered stone to plant as a seed and a prayer.

It is said that when the young god Dionysus was killed and dismembered, the drops of his blood on the earth became pomegranate seeds. From them the first pomegranate trees grew, those ruby-bright fruits associated with Persephone and her underworld (a whole other interconnected set of Mysteries!) which ripen in autumn across the gardens of Greece. In ancient agricultural mythology and ritual throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and far beyond it too, the yearly dismemberment of a Vegetation God was central to the rebirth of the seed, the green, and the living land in spring. Dionysus, Greek god of wine, of the growing green things of the land, of vegetative life force, of ecstatic bacchanals and fertility and altered states, is a classic example of one such deity. 

Dionysus, a Satyr and a Maenad, Attic red-figure calyx krater, 520-510 BC (Courtesy of Scholia)
Dionysus' dismemberment was enacted by the orders of a jealous Hera—jealous, say the Classical myths, hiding her deeper power and deeper truth; that she was once the Great Goddess of a pre-Indo European Greece, and such an act was not done out of jealousy, spite or meanness, but as the necessary role of the Great Mother who doles out death and life, keeper of nature's older cycles, of which the coming and going green is but one. Interestingly, it was the Titans, that oldest substratum of Greek deities, who actually dismembered him, and Rhea, daughter of the Titan goddess Gaia (Earth) herself, who made him whole and revived him again. In later stories, the famous musician Orpheus, looking very much like a manifestation of the god of wine and green, was dismembered by frenzied Maenads, the priestesses of Dionysian rites.

As Ann Wroe writes in her magnificent book Orpheus: The Song of Life, "Mythologists watched him enter as a seed falling, the ash key turning in the wind, the kernel trodden underfoot, the grain flung out from the sower's hand. He sank into the earth until he released life. His husk rotted from him there, and white hairs of new roots crept out into the dark. A pale filament uncurled, like a question; the shoot grew. Orpheus, as a primitive god of vegetation, endured the cycle of the seasons from death to life, to death, to life again" (page 129). Later, she goes on to describe his death by the "sacred double-axe" (which sounds suspiciously like the double-bladed labrys, sacred to the goddesses of old Europe)—"It cleaved him so that life and voice were 'breathed out into the winds.' Orpheus in this scene was again a vegetation god, cut down because the seasons demanded harvest, pressing and winnowing to release new life. He was broken and spread out by hoes, mattocks, rakes and bloodied hands" (223).

A Maenad holding a thyrsus (a staff made of a giant fennel stalk with a pine cone wrapped with ivy leaves and honey on top, sacred to Dionysus and carried by all his priestesses) from a Roman relief c. 120-140 AD, Courtesy of Scholia
In later tellings, these Maenads were demoted to "angry farm-wives," but it seems certain to me that once their power was very great and very sacred indeed, and that it was perhaps their rites, more than the figure of Dionysus himself, which truly protected the fertility of the land. 

Some have called Dionysus simply the Greek version of the famous Egyptian Osiris, god of both the underworld and the green life of the earth, god of the Nile's flood and fertility, who was colored green like the very mud and silt. And yet both deities are very old, likely influencing each other in their mythology and ritual, but disparate in specifics and in practice, as are other Vegetation gods across Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.

A festival translated as "The Mysteries of Osiris," was considered the most important religious event in the ancient Egyptian world, as it heralded the annual flooding of the Nile, and the necessary fertility that those silty waters brought. During the festival, which lasted for almost a month, the murder and rebirth of Osiris were reenacted. In the old stories, Osiris was killed by his jealous brother Set, who first nailed him into a coffin and floated him down the Nile, and later dismembered him, scattering his 14 pieces all across the desert. His sister-wife Isis went after him, taking refuge in the papyrus swamps of the Nile Delta and seeking out every last piece of his body. She recovered all of them save his genitals, which had been eaten by fishes, but even these she magically remade from sacred things, and conceived their son Horus with him while in the form of a kite.

Isis, in the form of a bird, copulates with the deceased Osiris. At either side are Horus, although he is as yet unborn, and Isis in human form. Courtesy of Olaf Tausch

Osiris was thus reborn as god of the underworld, keeper of the rebirth of the year's green, and even, in some places, associated with the daily and yearly death and rebirth of the sun itself. Isis—great goddess of Egypt, keeper of the old magic of the earth— was the precursor of the Virgin Mary, particularly as she relates to a sacred-mother son iconography. The birth of Horus at the time of the winter solstice was celebrated in a ceremony called Kykellia, "The Rite of Isis," as the rebirth of the sun, and with it, the rebirth of the wheat crop. The stories of the birth of Christ coincide with the rebirth of the sun for a reason— and both are rooted in the imagery of the dismemberment of the vegetation god at the cusp of the year-- he who goes into the underworld as seed and returns as sprout, as green, as child, under the year's new sun.

Isis nursing Horus
According to the British Museum, "the Mysteries of Osiris took place between the 12th and 30th of the month of Khoiak (mid-October to mid-November), when the Nile retreated, depositing fertile soil ready to be sown. Every year, two figures of Osiris were prepared by priests in the secrecy of the temple. One was made of soil and barley grains, and the other was made of expensive ingredients including ground semi-precious stones. These sacred figures were carried in procession to their final resting place at the end of the ritual celebrations."

The actual exhibit featured a little case where you could see all the ingredients used in these sacred figures. I lingered long over that case, and wrote down the names, the list itself an incantation: lapis, flax seed, amethyst, saffron, aspalathus, date paste, Nile water, Nile silt, haematite, calamus root, barley, incense. 

From Sir James George Frazer's problematic but informative The Golden Bough we learn more—"Plutarch tells us that Osiris was murdered on the seventeenth of the month of Athyr, and that the Egyptians accordingly observed mournful rites for four days from the seventeenth of Athyr. [...] During these four days a gilt cow swathed in a black pall was exhibited as an image of Isis. [...] On the nineteenth day of the month the people went down to the sea, the priests carrying a shrine which contained a golden casket. into this casket they poured fresh water, and thereupon the spectators raised a shout that Osiris was found. After that they took some vegetable mould, moistened it with water, mixed it with precious spices and incense, and moulded the paste into a small moon-shaped image, which was then robed and ornamented." (page 434, The Golden Bough)

In the museum exhibit, I found myself particularly caught by the imagery of these molds of Osiris, filled with sacred spices, stones and also seeds, which were planted both along the Nile delta, and in a sacred granite coffin, which was watered by priests until it sprouted. More beautiful imagery for a worship of the regenerative powers of the green life of this earth, I can hardly imagine. 

(A priest watering Osiris in the Temple of Philae, Courtesy of the British Museum)

Obviously, this is a deeply powerful and also very vast mythology-- specifically of Osiris and Isis, and more generally of ritual and mythological dismemberment. What I've written here is only the briefest of explorations, to show you some of the roots of our SILT. One thing that has struck me during my research and writing is the way the mythos of dismemberment and vegetation deities seems to have changed throughout ancient times. I suspect that what was once the sacrifice of the Vegetation God at the hands of the Great Earth Mother, in her name, morphed into the Osiris cult during a time of increased patriarchal control. After all, Isis was also the goddess of the underworld, of rebirth, and of the fertility of the land, and the one who put Osiris back together, and yet Osiris seems to have taken much of the credit, though worship of Isis was so widespread across the ancient Greco-Roman world that she was folded into later Christian iconography.

In our SILT, I've tried to remedy this imbalance by telling part of the story from the perspective of a female narrator. It is written partly as diary entries, and partly as a series of incantatory scenes from the rituals of a far-distant desert future along the banks of a Californian river. Catherine's series of cut-paper illustrations are a revelation, an iconography of the kind of hope that dwells in the body, and of "the continuity of life which outlasts all changes of form," as C.G. Jung writes of the Osiris myth. 

These words from Jung seem the perfect rallying cry as we go forth into an unknown future. Devoted to making whole again what may be broken. Devoted to the new life that comes from every ending. Devoted to the truly awe-inspiring regenerative powers of this earth, of our bodies, and of our imaginations. 


  1. a wonderful response to events---better stories, both old and new at once, for better times...

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  3. Have you read "The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun"? A very old Mayan story retold beautifully by Martín Prechtel. It is another gorgeous, rich dismemberment story. I highly recommend. You can find a used copy on pretty easily I imagine.